Jerry Lee Lewis, a rock’n’roll pioneer who was as well known for his controversial private life as his music, has died aged 87.
The US musician, whose hits included Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On, was one of the last survivors of a generation of groundbreaking performers which included Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
Lewis, nicknamed “The Killer”, died at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis with his wife Judith by his side, his publicist announced on Friday.
Following his death, global stars including Sir Elton John, Ronnie Wood and Sir Ringo Starr paid tribute to his “trailblazing inspiration” in the world of music.
Announcing the news, his publicist Zach Farnum said: “Lewis, perhaps the last true, great icon of the birth of rock‘n’roll, whose marriage of blues, gospel, country, honky-tonk and raw, pounding stage performances so threatened a young Elvis Presley that it made him cry, has died.
“He was there at the beginning, with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and the rest, and watched them fade away one by one till it was him alone to bear witness, and sing of the birth of rock‘n’roll.”
Born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis later moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he found work as a studio musician for Sun Studios.
While working at Sun, he and Carl Perkins jammed with Presley and Johnny Cash in a session that would later be referred to as being played by the “Million Dollar Quartet”.
Emerging as one of rock music’s early showmen in the 1950s, his music went on to be a hit in the pop, country and R&B charts.
He also became known for his famous stage antics, such as playing standing up and even lighting the occasional piano on fire.
However, in 1958 his status came crashing down after the press learnt he had married his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown while he was touring in England.
His tour was cancelled, he was blacklisted from the radio and his earnings dropped overnight to virtually nothing.
Over the following decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, legal disputes, physical illness and many divorces.
Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer in the 1960s, and the music industry appeared to forgive him as he rose to prominence again.
He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986 and a few years later in 1989, he was honoured for his contribution to the recording industry with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The musician also received a host of accolades including a lifetime achievement Grammy and two Grammy hall of fame awards, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame earlier this year.
For his 2006 release Last Man Standing, Lewis enlisted the help of such admirers as Sir Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy.
His last album was a gospel record with his cousin, lifetime televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who had preached against his music when they were younger.
Paying tribute to the musican, Sir Elton said: “Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t have become who I am today.”
The veteran musician, who has previously cited Lewis as an influence for his love of the piano, added: “He was groundbreaking and exciting, and he pulverised the piano.
“A brilliant singer too. Thank you for your trailblazing inspiration and all the rock ‘n’ roll memories.”
Wood also paid tribute to Lewis with a series of photos of him alongside the late musician.
The Rolling Stones guitarist captioned the post on Twitter: “R.I.P. JLL the Killer- What a man.”
While The Beatles’ Sir Ringo tweeted: “God bless Jerry lee Lewis peace and love to all his family Ringo.”
— Ronnie Wood (@ronniewood) October 28, 2022
Kiss star Gene Simmons wrote: “Sadly, One of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll has passed. A rebel to the end. RIP, Jerry Lee Lewis” in his tribute on Twitter.
The musician suffered from various illnesses and injuries in the final years of his life, with doctors often telling him they should have taken him decades ago, Mr Farnum said.
He added that just before his death, Lewis’ wife Judith said: “He is ready to leave.”
On Thursday his death was falsely reported before a representative for Lewis confirmed he was still alive.
Lewis is survived by his seventh wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis, his children Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Phoebe Lewis and Lori Lancaster.